Monday, September 12, 2011

The death and life of American journalism: The media revolution that will begin the world again

By Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

On page xi, the authors write: “This book reflects our concern about changes that are occurring.  But we offer little in the way of nostalgia.  In fact, it is the opposite.  It is a cry for action to shape inevitable change in a manner that assures that America will have the journalistic institutions, practices and resources necessary to maintain what can credibly be described as a self-governing society.  We do not know the precise character or content of the new media that will develop, but we do know that without bona fide structures for gathering and disseminating news and analysis, the American experiment in democracy and republican governance will be imperiled” (p. xi).

This is a well-researched (43 pages of notes), well-written (intended for the layman, not the technical expert), carefully developed argument designed for those who are interested in looking at “the past and the future of journalism in a more fundamental and critical manner” (p. xii).

They add, “This book proposes specific new methods for using public subsidies to generate a high-quality, uncensored, competitive and independent news media.  These methods are founded on an understanding of and respect for the new technologies that make possible a journalism that is more adventurous, more exciting, more participatory and more valuable to society and democracy than any American has ever known” (pp. xiii-xiv).

The authors have based their approach and solutions on a “decade working on media policy issues in Washington and across the nation . . . We have worked with politicians from both major parties and all political philosophies on successful campaigns to stop media consolidation and government secrecy and to promote an open uncensored Internet and viable independent public media” (p. xiv).

I quote extensively from their preface for one reason: they deliver on their promise.  This book is clearly and purposefully designed as a manifesto for change delivered by two extremely well-qualified experts.

The authors write of the crisis as well as the opportunity.  Their statistics, charts, examples, stories, and quotations are absolutely captivating and convincing.  I thought the story of Kate Giammarise was an incredibly well-chosen example of what is happening and has happened in journalism.  “The naked and uncomfortable truth is that the business model that sustained commercial news media for the past century is dying, and cannot be recreated” (p. 74), is a statement the authors make that is well-developed and supported.  They also state, “. . . we can see a new and dramatically superior caliber of journalism emerging as a result of the Internet . . . It will be a journalism that can truly open up our politics, in the manner democratic theory suggests” (p. 81).

Their discussion of solutions has four components: “1) immediate measures to sustain journalism, each of which transitions to a permanent subsidy if successful; 2) a plan to convert the collapsing corporate newspaper into what we term a ‘post-corporate’ digital newspaper, with print versions at the very least until there is ubiquitous broadband; 3) converting public and community broadcasting into genuinely worldclass civic and democratic media; and 4) spawning a vibrant, well-funded, competitive and innovative news-media sector on the Internet” (p. 159).

One of the essential keys to the success of their ideas is mentioned: “There are significant roles to be played by private enterprise, foundations and nonprofit organizations.  But we no longer have any doubt that without the government providing subsidies comparable to what other leading democratic nations provide, and to what this nation routinely provided in its first century, the initiatives of these other actors will have limited effect” (p. 221).

This is an excellent — outstanding — book that deserves to be read by anyone concerned about the future of journalism.  You may not agree with their arguments (but I think you will), but you will have to acknowledge that journalism must and will change.  McChesney and Nichols provide a reasonable, well-thought-out, and well presented blueprint as they see it.

This book can be found at The death and life of American journalism: The media revolution that will begin the world again

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